5 Awful Lessons Disney Teaches You About Relationships
On one hand, relationships in Disney cartoons are obviously condensed, idealized fantasies that tend to include far more dragons and anthropomorphic mice than you can expect in your own marriage. But on the other hand, these are literally the first fictional relationships that millions of kids are exposed to.
So what's wrong with a four-year-old girl seeing a downtrodden young girl get swept off her feet by a handsome prince, and then watching that same movie 136 more times until Mom and Dad "lose" the DVD? Well it has to do with the lessons those movies have been teaching us for the last 80 years or so. Things like ...
"Any Single Woman Older Than 30 Turns Into A Twisted Monster!"
If there's an unmarried woman over 30 in the cast of a Disney movie, you can more or less bet that she's the villain -- an evil sorceress, like in Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid, an evil stepmother, like in Cinderella, or both, like in Snow White. Left unmarried and unfulfilled, they spend their free time learning witchcraft and scheming against pretty teenage women; you know, the ones who still have a chance at happiness.
God, just look at this hideous she-beast, if you can.
In most cases, their evil motivation is jealousy. The Queen in Snow White and Ursula the scheming meroctopus from The Little Mermaid are overwhelmed with rage about being alone and unattractive. Even though the Queen is, according to the magic mirror, the second most attractive woman on Earth, she's still twisted into insanity over only winning silver. In her case, as well as that of the evil witch from Tangled, their bitterness eventually winds up bringing out their true forms, which are of course broken-down, ancient hags. You know, the worst possible thing you can ever be.
Girls, you better put a ring on that finger before you wind up spending your days weeping over a crystal ball in some decrepit castle spire.
This was a single's bar until the clock struck midnight on her 30th birthday.
In the real world, of course, single people are doing fine. Even though popular opinion mirrors Disney in believing that reaching 30 without getting married reflects failure and will result in a bitter depression, studies show that single adults are generally no less happy than married people, and happier than those divorced or widowed. In fact, autonomy (the ability to do whatever you damn well please, whenever you want) is one of the best indicators of overall life satisfaction. Aging isn't a huge deal either, since we are seeing that people in general get happier as they get older. So really, making it past thirty without a ball and chain allows you to have a super awesome, happy life where you don't have to convince anyone else that popcorn, booze, and frosting counts as dinner.
But of course, the evil old spinster is part of an overall theme here ...
"Young Love Is The Best And Most Pure Bond You Will Ever Have!"
This sort of thing is so common that you barely even notice it: Every single Disney princess is under 20. That's not surprising, since these are kids' movies, and kids tend to imagine a 35-year-old looking like the hideous crone in Snow White. Cinderella is 19 when she gets married, so she's basically elderly by Disney standards. Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), Ariel, and Mulan are 16. Jasmine is 15. Snow White is goddamn 14. Seriously, it says that at the start of the movie (after the credits, they attend her eighth grade graduation).
So this scene somehow managed to get creepier!
Of course, a lot of these movies take place sometime in the Middle Ages, when getting married as soon as you hit puberty was routine (since everybody was dead of the plague by 22). But think about the lesson there. How many girls grew up thinking a truly beautiful princess should meet her soul mate while her age still starts with a "1"? How many found out that's a recipe for disaster? Current studies put divorce rates for teenager marriages at around 22 percent higher than marriages of those who waited. Two-thirds of people who marry between 15 and 22 wind up divorcing. The majority of these Disney marriages would be doomed if not for the fact that medieval marriages were probably cold and distant by definition, and filing for divorce would get you burned as a witch.
Obviously, in the real world, people are much happier if they lived and learned a little bit before deciding to tie the knot -- your personality hasn't even fully formed as a teenager. In addition to age, people who are more educated also tend to have more successful marriages than those who dropped out of high school.
We hope she's been dreaming about math lessons.
But all of that seems like a downer to a little girl who has been taught that a handsome man will swoop in and rescue her from her awful parents/captors. Come on, who is the wicked stepmother supposed to symbolize in these stories? "Don't worry about your shitty home life. If you're beautiful enough, your prince will come along and rescue you from that witch!" Which brings us to ...
"A Whirlwind Romance Fixes All Past Trauma!"
It's basically a rule in Disney movies that the protagonists either come from broken families or are downright orphans. Snow White's presumably dead dad left her in the care of a stepmother who is literally trying to kill her. Cinderella's family forces her into a life of indentured slavery. Belle and Ariel's childhoods are defined by absentee single fathers. Aurora is forced to live in the woods, and she's 16 before she meets another human being. Anna from Frozen suffers the death of her parents and has to live alone with a sister who refuses to talk to her. And these movies are made for kids.
"Look, we can build a snowman or build crippling emotional issues. Your choice."
Of course, it always works out fine for the characters when they get married and instantly activate the "happily ever after" clause. Hardly a word is ever said about the crippling, lifelong psychological damage that they're suffering. Simba might be a lion, but watching his dad get shredded by wild animals had to do something terrible to his psyche.
"Hakuna matata, smile, be normal. Hakuna matata, smile, be normal. Hakuna matata, smile, be normal."
In real life, experiencing the death of a parent during childhood leaves mental scars that typically manifest themselves as isolation, low self-esteem, and trust issues. And having a poor relationship with your family (say, for example, because they try to murder you or lock you in a tower) raises the risk that you're going to have trouble forming functional relationships in the future.
"So ... how long until you reveal your ulterior motives and try to murder me like that last guy?"
That means that all of these victims of traumatic childhoods are entering into (young) marriages where the only relationship they've ever known was with someone who would occasionally transform into a witch and give them poisoned food. That's all they know about how to interact with other people. Studies show that a third of people who were abused as children go on to become abusive adults, and those who don't still tend to have other problems, like severe anxiety. It's not that trauma survivors can't find happiness -- it's that falling in love won't instantly cure trauma.
"I can't wait to live in the castle where you locked me up and abused me!"
Especially when the new relationship was formed in the course of some crazy adventure. That brings us to ...
"Whirlwind Romances Last Forever!"
Since they have to compress an entire relationship into a 90-minute adventure full of singing woodland animals, love affairs in Disney movies tend to be a little rushed. Belle falls in love with the Beast over the course of about four or five nights in his castle (after he kidnapped her and trapped her inside, so that's more likely a case of Stockholm Syndrome, but whatever). Cinderella and Aurora's entire courting periods both consist of a single dance sequence. In many cases, they marry the first human male they've ever met in their lives, like in Tangled (note that Anna from Frozen breaks this trope by marrying the second guy she meets).
These love affairs are much better described as crushes and infatuations. Shit, Snow White never even meets the dude she winds up marrying. She spends the whole movie obsessing over a guy with a white horse and a large royal inheritance, and instantly weds the first man that checks all those boxes.
"Hey ... so ... what are you into?"
There's nothing wrong with whirlwind romances in real life, aside from the fact that they rarely work out. Which is common sense; the odds are low that your partner of two weeks is compatible enough to marry, and if you're willing to bet otherwise, Vegas would love you (hey, there's a reason casinos have marriage parlors right alongside them). Yet lots of us grow up with that fantasy, that the person we meet in the middle of some dramatic high-stress period is our soulmate just because of how we felt in that moment. Never mind that we felt that way due to adrenaline and all sorts of other heightened stress responses from fear and uncertainty (this is one reason why people tend to enter into disastrous romantic relationships during rehab ... along with the fantasy of being "rescued" from that situation).
There are only so many gigantic sea monsters you can slay to keep up an emotional and sexual high.
As you can guess, research shows that relationships built on a thrilling and brief dating period are short-lived. In many cases, you're not in love with that person -- you're in love with the drama. When the excitement goes away, so does the relationship, leaving at least one of the partners to go seeking more drama. This would presumably involve either finding someone shiny and new to have another whirlwind romance with, or stuffing their beloved in the trunk of the car and driving it off a cliff. Things are pretty much over at that point either way.
"You Should Forgive Lies And Outright Abuse, As Long As Their Love Is True!"
Right away, it's a little weird how almost all the relationships in Disney movies are based on some kind of massive deception. Cinderella gets her prince by using her fairy godmother to fool him into believing she's royalty. Aladdin uses his fairy godRobinWilliams to do the same thing. In The Little Mermaid, Ariel has to fool her prince into believing that she's even human.
Oh sure, the moral of the story is supposed to be that it's what's on the inside that counts. And sure enough, when they reveal the lie, all is forgiven! Jasmine barely even flinches when her charming prince declares "Psych! I sleep on a pile of monkey excrement!" See, they only needed the deception to get a foot in the door. How can you stay mad about that?
"Actually, your breath kind of gave it away."
You could say that the intended lesson in each case is that you shouldn't lie to lure in your mate (because they love you just the way you are!), but the problem is in every case, the relationship wouldn't have been possible without it. And the lesson is even worse from the other end. Looking past your partner's horrible actions because you think they're a good person "on the inside" is exactly what keeps people in shitty relationships.
You know, like if your boyfriend romanced you by kidnapping you and locking you in a castle, and tended to go into violent, furniture-smashing rages when you defied his wishes. That's the cheery story of Beauty And The Beast, and it also ticks all the boxes for domestic abuse. The characters advise Belle over and over to look past the fact that the guy wooing her is a quadrupedal hellbeast with severe, violent anger problems, because deep down he's a really nice guy! And what are the chances that your boyfriend will stop threatening to kill and eat you once the spell is broken? Unfortunately, they're close to zero. Why would he?
"You taste delicious, Belle. I mean, you look delicious. I mean ... shit."
See, that's the thing -- humans tend to keep doing what works. Aladdin was more than willing to lie about his entire identity, but it's only because he loves you! And he's probably going to keep lying, using that exact same rationalization. Why not? It worked the first time.
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Also check out The 7 Most Terrifying Disney Movie Deaths and 6 True Stories About Disneyland They Don't Want You to Know.